Golden Age of London’s Coffee Houses
Samuel Pepys raved about them, Charles Dickens wrote his unforgettable characters into them and many gave birth to our most famous institutions. For 200 years London’s colourful coffee houses played a sparkling role in the life of the nation. For as little as a penny they promised a cup of steaming fresh coffee among lively company and laughter and, some claimed, a universitylevel education for life.
So great a Universitie I think there ne’er was any In which you may a scholar be For spending a Penny.
So reported News From The Coffee Houses in 1677 delighting in the extraordinary value for money to be found in the capital’s coffee houses. In those days, without radio and television, speaking-out publicly was one of the only ways to be heard.
In the warm companionship of the coffee house almost anyone wanting to share their latest idea or opinion could be sure of a listening ear. For only a penny, coffee was served in such a welcoming atmosphere many patrons claimed they spent more time there than in their own home. Not surprisingly coffee house lanterns glowed well into the night.
It all started in 1650 when the rich aroma of coffee wafted through the streets of Oxford as the first-ever coffee house opened its doors. Shortly after, the Pasqa Rosee offered its attractions in London’s St. Michael’s Alley. Together they launched a fashion that was to give birth to 3,000 coffee houses in London by the mid18th century.
Leading wits and experts of the day were soon attracted to them and the idea grew that for a mere trifle, patrons would be educated to university standard.
In an age when knowing your place was important the coffee houses beckoned to everyone. “All People May Here Be Seen” was a motto seen in many of London’s venues. Visitors from abroad were amazed to see ordinary folk regularly poring over papers and discussing the latest political scene. Still, patrons did favour their own special haunts. The coffee houses of Westminster and Whitehall rang with the gossip of politicians and admirers of high-society while Samuel Pepys sparked the reputation of Wills in Covent Garden as the “favourite of the wits in town”. Charles Dickens lived only a few steps away from Woods at Furnival Inn, Holborn, when he began to write Pickwick Papers.
In other coffee houses, partnerships and business plans were hatched and grew into spectacular successes. Insurance underwriters founded the world famous Lloyd’s of London in a coffee house and the Stock Exchange and Commercial Union began in a similar way.
Even posting a letter overseas became no problem. A quick trip to the local haunt provided patrons with paper, pens, ink and newspapers and magazines. Reporters, known as runners, circulated among the coffee rooms keeping everyone up-todate with the latest news.
Coffee remained popular into Georgian times, when it began to suffer from competition from tea. It failed to become the national drink and could only be afforded by the well-
off. Towards the end of the coffee house era many havens returned to their original role of tavern or wine house.
But by then, London’s coffee houses had kindled an astonishing level of sociability among all classes of the population. That openness gave birth to creativity and innovation on a remarkable scale and even today we are reaping benefits from those wonderfully welcoming penny universities of bygone days.